It is easily forgotten that there was criticism of Atlanta being considered an expansion market for Major League Soccer around six years ago.
Detractors said Atlanta is the Southeast, where football, not futbol, is king. After all, they said, look at what happened to Atlanta’s two NHL teams. The Flames and Thrashers both went north of the border, where they care about such things.
They lamented the nature of Atlanta’s sports fans. Sure, the city went Falcon-crazy when Atlanta reached the Super Bowl in the 1998 and 2016 seasons, but showed about as much passion for the team as someone with a bottle full of Ambien in their system during the 4-12 campaign of 2013.
With backing from these arguments, the naysayers predicted how pathetic it would be to host a soccer game in a sparkling new, 72,000 seat NFL stadium when just a few thousand show up to try and figure out why Atlanta should care about soccer.
But what these disparagers did not, and probably could not, have predicted is that an entire city would be swept up in the passion, United as one.
As both a fan and sports reporter, I have been either on the sidelines or in the stands at countless playoff games, championships games and overtime thrillers.
Along with 110,000 others, I witnessed Tennessee’s unlikely and incredible win over Arkansas at Neyland Stadium in 1998. I saw my beloved Thrashers erase a three-goal deficit in six minutes of the third period against the New Jersey Devils in 2006 before a sellout crowd.
But by far the best experience I’ve ever had a sporting event was the June 30 Atlanta United match against Orlando City.
I walked into the arena buzzing from the atmosphere that seemed to radiate for miles surrounding Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Excitement and anticipation was on every countenance I saw. The drumming and cheers from the supporters section adding to the fever pitch surrounding the pitch. And just four minutes into the game, United scored, which began the onslaught of screams, cheers and yells coming from my soon overworked throat.
It was an incredible experience, spent with 71,931 of my fellow fans. I can say they were all supporters, because no one could have walked away from that experience without the creation of fandom.
Six years ago, detractors worried about bringing soccer to Atlanta. What they did not, and could not, have predicted is that soccer brought Atlanta together.
I know plenty of people who, two years ago, couldn’t tell you the difference between a red card and a red herring, who now debate the pros and cons of a 3-5-2 formation.
They don the five-stripes kits, and not because they want to appear part of the cultural wave that United has brought to the city, they are truly fans.
A perfect example is my father, who joined me at the June 30 United match.
This is a man who has probably watched about five soccer matches in his life before the United was created. But on that day, he was cheering, correctly calling plays and was truly invested.
He had become a fan. He was part of the movement. And we are all United with him.